Yesterday I walked down to Juilliard to hear the last of this season's Sunday Morse Hall chamber recitals in a noontime performance that featured works by Dvořák, Mozart and Messiaen.
The program opened with Dvořák's Terzetto in C, Op. 74 (1887). It was performed by Mo Lei Luo and Yimiao Chen, violins, and Ao Peng, viola; they were coached by Lewis Kaplan. Dvořák is such a popular composer that it comes as something of a shock to realize a great many of his chamber works are only rarely performed. The Terzetto is one such piece, although in this case it may have something to do with the unusual combination of instruments for which it is scored. Originally written for a neighbor who was also an amateur violinist, the piece has an informal air that is at least partly due to its structure - the first movement is in ternary form rather than sonata - as well as the folk music influences that remain discreetly in the background. It may not be a major piece of music, but it's an enjoyable diversion from a truly great composer.
The next work was Mozart's String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat major, K. 458 (1784) nicknamed "the Hunt" for the evocation of a hunting call in the first bars of the opening movement. The musicians were Guangnan Yue and Sara Bauman, violins, Ao Peng, viola, and Shangwen Liao, cello; they too were coached by Lewis Kaplan. This is the fourth of the six "Haydn Quartets," so called for their dedication to the composer who more or less invented the string quartet form as we know it today. It was most likely the publication of Haydn's Op. 33 in 1781 that provided Mozart the inspiration to make his own attempt at the genre. He was then just in the process of relocating to Vienna where he first met the older composer, then already internationally famous, and began performing with him the Opp. 20 and 33 quartets that had revolutionized European music. The debt Mozart owed Haydn can most readily be understood by comparing his new quartets to the "Viennese Quartets," K. 168 through 173, that had been written almost a decade earlier and that really were no more than divertimenti. If Mozart's latest efforts did not surpass Haydn's accomplishments, they were certainly on a par with them. It was after having heard them that Haydn complimented the younger man's "most profound knowledge of composition" to his father Leopold. The No. 17 is a particularly enjoyable and upbeat work even in the slow third movement adagio in E-flat major.
After a brief intermission the recital ended with a performance of Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940-1941) for piano (Natalie Nedvetsky), clarinet (Phillip Solomon), violin (Helen Vassiliou) and cello (Drew Cone) as coached by Sylvia Rosenberg. Without doubt, few pieces of music have so dramatic an origin as this can boast. Briefly, Messiaen was captured while serving France during World War II and sent to a POW camp in Poland where he became acquainted with three other prisoners who were also musicians. The composer then wrote a piece in eight movements that the four could perform together. Messiaen was obviously limited in his choice of available instruments, but Paul Hindemith had previously composed in 1938 a work for the same combination. The quartet was actually premiered at the camp - outdoors and in the rain - with both prisoners and guards in attendance, all of whom reportedly gave it an enthusiastic reception. There was, unfortunately, a disappointing sequel to this feel-good story. The guard, Carl-Albert Brüll, who had contrived to give the musicians rehearsal time and later forged documents for their release, traveled to Paris and attempted to meet with Messiaen after the war had ended but was rebuffed and sent away without even having had an opportunity to see the man for whom he had done so much. Why Messiaen displayed such gross ingratitude has never been satisfactorily explained. Whatever the cause, the composer's boorish behavior has always tainted my appreciation of the piece.
Nevertheless, no matter what its history, the Quatuor is an incredible achievement, especially when one takes into account the conditions in which it was conceived. In it, Messiaen paid his fellow captives the huge compliment of writing for each of them solo parts that would test the skills of any musician. The entire work revolves around the three movements that feature these solos (with piano accompaniment) - the Abîme des oiseaux for clarinet, the Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus for cello, and the final moving Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus for violin that is really the soul of the work.